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NY Senate Votes On Road Safety Measures

School bus
Pat Bradley/WAMC

The State Senate acted Wednesday on measures that lawmakers say will improve safety on New York’s roads, including adding cameras to the stop arms of school buses.

Senator Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat who is chair of the Transportation Committee, says an estimated 50,000 drivers per day in New York pass a stopped school bus. He says that happens despite the buses’ red flashing lights and a stop sign arm.

“It is absolutely unconscionable and it’s illegal” Kennedy said. But unfortunately over the years there hasn’t been an enforcement measure in place. That changes today.”

Kennedy says the drivers will now be held accountable. School districts will have the option of requesting cameras from law enforcement in their communities, and installing them on the stop arms. Police can then review the footage caught by the cameras and issue a $250 fine to anyone recorded passing a stopped school bus.

Municipalities where the school district is located will have to finance the program.   

It would take effect in the school year that begins in September.  

A second measure will require that passengers in the back seat of a car be required to wear seat belts. Bill sponsor Senator David Carlucci, a Democrat from the Hudson Valley, says passengers not wearing the belts are eight times more likely to be killed or injured in a car crash. He says ride hailing companies like Lyft and Uber have increased the number of people who ride in the back seat of cars.

“We need to send the message that you have to wear your seat belt regardless of where you’re sitting in that vehicle,” Carlucci said.

The measure would fine both the driver of the car and the passenger, if they are over the age of 16, if they are caught not wearing a seat belt in the back seat of a car. Current rules already fine the driver if a passenger younger than 16 is not using a seat belt.

Another measure updates driver education curriculum and road tests to train drivers to better watch out for bicyclists and pedestrians. Senator Andrew Gounardes is the sponsor.  

“The roadways have changed,” said the bill's sponsor, Senator Andrew Gounardes, a Brooklyn Democrat. “Now we have many more pedestrians using our roadways, many more cyclists using our roadways, we have motorized bikes, we have e-bikes, we have motorcycles. We have cars and vehicles of all kinds. Unless we are teaching people how to drive and operate in a shared space, we're never going to change the culture of driving that continues to lead to this growing epidemic we are facing in our state of more and more cyclists and pedestrians being killed by motor crashes." 

E-bikes and scooters are currently illegal in New York. Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says Democrats have not yet discussed a bill to legalize the vehicles.

The Senate package also includes waterway safety measures. A bill, known as Brianna’s Law, would require that owners and operators of boats undergo a safety training course. It is named after Brianna Lieneck, who was killed at the age of 11 in a 2005 boating accident off the coast of Long Island that also severely injured several members of her family.  

Senator Phil Boyle, a Republican from Long Island who previously sponsored the bill, says he and his wife heard the sirens of emergency vehicles responding to the accident from their front porch.   

“We would not hand a set of keys to someone and just say ‘you're out there, go drive down the road,'” Boyle said. “The water is the same way. And the vehicles are just as dangerous and just as deadly.”

Lieneck’s mother and sister were present for the vote.

The traffic and boating safety measures passed with little controversy, though several Republican Senators voted against the seat belt requirement. Some GOP Senators also voted against the boating safety requirement, saying it doesn’t go far enough to cover those who rent boats.

The state Assembly has already approved several of the measures, including the cameras on school bus stop arms, and the boating safety measure. Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo also backs many of the measures, and is expected to sign them.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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